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South America is not going to be an easy place for two vegetarians who like their food, so during our travels we’ll be investigating the best meat-free options and creating a Vegetarian Survival Guide for each country we visit.
Brazil is as meat orientated as the rest of the continent, and has the additional problem of being quite expensive for budget travellers. We found that most cheap restaurants don’t have any vegetarian options at all, as the set meals consist of meat, chicken or fish served with rice, beans and salad.
We managed to survive though, and without blowing the budget too much. Here are our recommendations for vegetarians visiting Brazil.
Learn Some Portuguese
English is not widely spoken so it’s vital to learn some Brazilian Portuguese phrases. We found the Lonely Planet Brazilian Portuguese Phrasebook useful with a fairly extensive menu reader and some basic vegetarian phrases. Portuguese pronunciation is tricky though so it’s worth doing an audio course as well.
You could try telling people “Eu sou vegetariano” (I am a vegetarian), but this often won’t mean anything to them so it’s best to be more specific:
“Eu não como carne, peixe ou frango” (I don’t eat meat, fish or poultry).
Por Kilo Restaurants
Por kilo restaurants were our saviour. They are self service buffet style restaurants where you help yourself and then pay by weight (take your plate up to be weighed before sitting down). They are found everywhere in Brazil, even in small towns, and are one of the cheapest options for eating out. Although they offer plenty of meat we could always find salad, chips, rice and often pasta. The quality of labelling varies so you’ll need to ask if you aren’t sure what something is (this is where the Portuguese comes in).
Our absolute favourite por kilo restaurant was on Ilha Grande off the coast of the state of Rio. Biergarten (Av. Getúlio Vargas 161, Abraão) has plenty of fresh, tasty, well-labelled vegetarian options including interesting salads, pastas, vegetable bakes and mashed potatoes. It’s a definite cut above the rest.
New Natural in Ipanema (Rua Barão da Torre 173) is another above-average self service restaurant with good vegetarian choices.
Cost: 10 – 15 reais depending on the restaurant and how much you eat.
We ate a lot of pizza as it is easy to find and is usually decent. It isn’t ultra cheap but if you share it can be reasonable. Good vegetarian toppings to look out for are tomate seco (sun dried tomatoes), rucola (rocket), berenjela (aubergine/eggplant), palmito (palm heart), and cebolla (onion).
We enjoyed the pizzas at Pizza na Praça on Ilha Grande and at the bars in Largo das Neves, a lovely square in Santa Teresa, Rio de Janeiro.
Cost: 20-30 reais for medium- large size.
Savoury deep-fried pastries known as pastels are everywhere but it can be hard to find vegetarian fillings. The most you can hope for is queijo (cheese), but this isn’t always available.
Pastels are rarely labelled so you´ll need to try out your Portuguese and ask if they have anything without meat or fish/ with only cheese: “Tem alguma coisa sem carne ou peixe/ com so queijo?“. Remember that it’s always worth breaking open your pastel before biting in, just in case.
Another useful veggie snack is Pão de Queijo – small cheese bread balls that are common in Brazil.
Cost: About 3 reais.
Fill Up at Breakfast
Most hotels and hostels in Brazil provide really good breakfasts for free. Even if you avoid the ham there are still options for vegetarians including good fresh bread rolls, cheese, jams, tropical fruit and juices, and sometimes cake. Make the most of it and fill yourself up for the rest of the day.
One of the best things about Brazil is the huge range of tropical fruit, and especially the fresh juices (sucos). Juice bars are found on most corners and are the cheapest place to sample a refreshing beverage. Orange (laranja), passion-fruit (maracujá), mango (manga), guava (goiaba), kiwi (kiwi), pineapple (abacaxí), papaya (mamão), lime (limão), cashew fruit (cajú) and melon (melão) are all gorgeous.
Best of all is açai – a purple palm tree berry native to Brazil that is supposed to be very nutritious. We’d never come across it before but quickly became huge fans. Mixed with ice it’s very refreshing, and locals often eat the thick mixture with a spoon from a bowl with banana, granola and other toppings.
You can also enjoy fruit juices mixed with the local brew cachaça to create the national cocktail caipirinha. It is most commonly mixed with lime juice, but other fruity flavours are available.
Cost: 2.50 reais in a juice bar, 4 reais in a bar or restaurant. At least double that for a caipirinha (the cheapest are found at street stalls).
It may not be healthy but the wonderful Brazilian ice-cream is the perfect antidote to a disappointing vegetarian meal. Sorveterias (ice cream parlours) are common, but our favourite is on Ilha Grande, next to the ferry terminal in Abraão. There are over 30 flavours which you are free to sample, before helping yourself to a cone or bowl full and choosing your toppings. Take your creation to the till and pay by weight (of course, this is Brazil).
As with pizza we are very grateful for the Italian influence in Brazil!
Cost: It depends on how much you have but two scoops were usually about 3.50 reais.
For a list of vegetarian restaurants and health food shops in Brazil visit Happy Cow.
Please note that this is based on our 2.5 weeks in Brazil where we only visited the state of Rio de Janeiro. Things could vary in other parts of this huge country.